Spreading the Love of Communal Bathing

How Dr. Brodsky Built Archimedes Banya

It’s a typical Thursday night at Archimedes: the saunas are packed with sweating bodies and the steam oven’s stones give off the perfect sizzle indicating the complex heating system is operating properly. The regulars are catching each other up on the week’s events and offering compliments on the quality of the heat to no one in particular, when a man walks up the stairs wearing a gray hat with “BOSS” unironically stitched into the felt. He raises his hands above his head to survey the conditions as he has done in almost every sauna from here to Kamchatka. “I’ll add a few scoops”, he says. Even without the custom embroidery, his presence is ominous causing one of the guests to lean over and whisper to his friend “that’s the owner.”

Dr. Mikhail Brodsky is indeed the Boss of the Banya. When he isn’t cooking steam, he wears a boss hat of a different kind at Lincoln University in Oakland where he is the President. To friends he is known as Misha, but to sweat enthusiasts all over the world, he has come to be known as Archimedes. Like the ancient mathematician and inventor, Misha is a problem solver with an eye for detail, which means he is almost always in teaching mode. “I designed this room so the steam would rise and collect before falling here,” he instructs as he points to the corners of the room. “See how the ceiling slopes?”

As the dense steam falls, Misha waves his towel in the air to mix the heat and spread his love of sweat bathing across the room. Some guests head for the cold plunge as Misha takes his place on the top shelf — his favorite spot in the sauna — while others stay with anticipation that class is about to be in session.

I recall the first platza I gave when Misha was in the sauna. I could feel him observing my technique and sensing my nerves wielding veniks instead of a paintbrush, the standard tool of my trade. Anticipating a lecture, I was shocked and relieved when he approached, grabbed a venik and joined in on the action. “All details are important, there is nothing secondary,” Misha recently told me, describing the perfect platza as a philosopher would. “The success is in the details.”

However, building a successful Russian bathhouse on the shores of the San Francisco Bay was easier said than done. As the story goes, it was 1998 and Misha was a statistics research professor climbing the ladder of academia. When his application to be a department chair was rejected, he instead decided to pitch the idea of a public banya to his Russian friends and his steam buddies at Frogs. “The Bay Area is so international and I feel an obligation to educate our community in the different ways of communal bathing,” Misha told me. There was no lack of enthusiasm for his vision, but financing was not as easy to come by. Thus began the twelve year journey to opening Archimedes. “I was not confident in the result, chances to complete the project were slim and several partners withdrew. However I am also quite stubborn and that helps against calculations.”

Drawing from years of experience soaking and sweating in bathhouses all over the world, Misha had plenty of inspiration for how Archimedes should look. “My wife and I were always attracted to the simplicity of ancient Roman architecture from the baths of Caracalla and Pompeii. When we went to Stockholm, we fell in love with the Art Nouveau swimming pool at Centralbadet. By the way, they also have their banya on the ground floor, then residences, then the roof deck.” Misha is a wellspring of knowledge when it comes to building a modern urban bathhouse, but his dream project became complex after working with several different artists and architects. “I tried to include as many features from different bathing cultures as possible in a relatively small space. I have all the designs, but finally the simplicity proposed by Vadim Puyandaev and structural requirements, such as the columns, made the banya as it appears today.”

Archimedes opened its doors for the Bay Area banya community on New Year’s Eve in 2011. It was never a guarantee, and no one knows the obstacles that were overcome better than the Boss. “It required some bravery for Americans to believe that a co-ed, clothing optional bathhouse could exist,” he said. “Of course San Francisco is among the best places to get it done.”

Twenty years into his quest to spread the practice of communal bathing and Misha is still dedicated to the cause. When I asked about his most outrageous schvitz, he described a private banya next to a lake outside Riga, Latvia whose owner overcame hurdles to open a banya for people. “It was the right time, late October or early November, so it was cold outside. The platza man was heavily tattooed and had spent years in prison. Now he realized, respected, and valued the simple pleasures of life, specifically banya rituals. It was his love of the banya and his pride in demonstrating the quality of his place, his veniks, and his work. The combination resulted in my great experience.” Perhaps Misha’s commitment to his vision and his attention to details are the greatest legacy he has created with Archimedes Banya.

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